22 June 2018

Review - The Mermaid by Christina Henry

Design by Julia Lloyd
The Mermaid
Christina Henry
Titan Books, 19 June 2018
PB, 321pp

Source: Review copy kindly provided by the publisher. (Thank you!)

Following on from Henry's retellings of Alice (as an abused girl adrift in a dangerous world) and of Peter Pan, this book is, as the name makes clear, her take on the legend of the mermaid who falls for a human man.

Rather than focussing on the remote fishing village where that happens, however, The Mermaid dispenses with the human husband briskly and follows Amelia's later life. Tempted to swim down the Big City (New York) she falls in with that great showman and liar, PT Barnum who, not surprisingly, wants to exhibit her in his "American Museum".

I admired the way that Henry transitions her story, beginning in familiar fairytale vein ("once there was a fisherman, a lonely man") then moving into a plain (and rather moving) depiction of Amelia's life with Jack and finally confronting the emotional complexities and social realities of 19th century New York.

Here Amelia has to navigate not only unfamiliar conventions - the constricting clothes, rules about who she may talk to and be alone with - but a delicate web of relationships within Barnum's museum, with his wife, Charity, his lieutenant, Levi (who found Amelia in the first place) and with wider society which has definite views on a young woman (even if she "isn't human") who appears naked in a tank of water.

Most of all, she suffers from the attention of a world of men. Indeed her situation is almost the personification of one subject to "male gaze":

She could think only of the eyes, the parade of eyes that would march past her all day.

Later, the theme of human cruelty becomes even more explicit when Barnum sends Amelia, accompanied by a motley group of performers and exhibits including an unfortunate orang-utan, to the South and Amelia witnesses caged and chained humans - something she had thought only happened to animals (and mermaids).

The writing here, describing Amelia's plight and turmoil, is right on the nose as the pressure builds and Amelia's relationship with Levi, hitherto her friend and protector, fractures:

He would not be converted. Amelia finally realised it was because he himself did not understand what it meant to be different and to have people expect you to change for their sake. She realised that no man could understand this, really, though they expected their wives to do so every day.

Amelia is driven into ever tighter corners - and dangers - both from the contradictions of her relationships with the men around her and the prejudices of society. She is out of her element, both literally and figuratively.

It's an enjoyable read, both more and less rooted in the real world than Henry's earlier books - more in the literal setting and the presence of historical characters, less in being more "magical". These skilfully blended elements keep the reader alert for what may happen next - we may think we know how a mermaid story ends - and provide a perfect backdrop for Henry's astute observation of human society.

For more information or to buy the book, see the publisher's website here.

(Finally, isn't that cover by Julia Lloyd gorgeous? - and so in keeping with the designs for Henry's earlier books)

19 June 2018

Blogtour review - Shattermoon by Dominic Dulley

Dominic Dulley
Jo Fletcher Books, 4 June 2018
PB, 433pp

I'm grateful to Jo Fletcher Books for an advance copy of Shattermoon and for inviting me on the tour. (As well as the book, they also sent me instructions for making an Origami spaceship - - see below - how do you think I did?)

This is an absorbing adventure set in far future space (Earth is a distant memory). It's part mil-SF, part space piracy, part grift. and ALL space opera.

Orry Kent, her brother Ethan, and father Eoin make their living fleecing the Ruuz nobles of the Ascendency, currently by riding the wave of popularity of rare books, some dating back to Earth itself. We meet them in the middle of their latest scam, gulling Konstantin, heir to the Count of Delf.

But then Orry gets greedy and takes a liking to a certain pendant acquiring of which wasn't part of the plan. Soon, Konstantin is dead... and the Count wants HER dead. So does notorious pirate Morven Dyas... in fact, EVERYONE seems to want her dead. So begins a breathtaking romp taking in space battles, an abandoned alien civilisation, mercenaries, arrest, escape and a sentient spaceship with PTSD.

In tone it's a bit like what must be going on round the corner in Star Wars - indeed, it reminded me rather of the recent Solo film, (which I intend as praise). We don't see the manoeuvres of great powers here, but the little people - con artists, orphans on a marginal world, a lonely space captain, all making their way as best they can, all damaged, all vulnerable. (In making the comparison with Solo I should say, though, that the book has rather darker themes with some scenes that make it definitely adult. For starters, Dulley has no compunction in killing off his characters, often in very nasty ways, and being dashing and adventurous is no guarantee of coming through unscathed. Some of those nobles are also pretty debauched!)

While there is a wide cast of characters here, it is, though, Orry's book. Present in every scene, she is a convincing protagonist, desperately scared for much of the time (she has an especial fear of spacewalks) yet resourceful and good in a fight. She's a key part of the grifting team, competes the "collapses" that steer the family's ship, Bonaventure, and her impulse to take that pendant in the House of Delf drives the story.

Of course there's a reason why everyone wants the pendant... I won't say what it is because that would rather spoil the story, but it does draw Orry and her family (and a couple of stout friends she makes in the course of the story) into wider and more dangerous matters. It's all a long way from running cons on unsuspecting nobles, but Orry's ability to blag her way into (and out of) pretty much anything comes in useful. She may, though, have come to the end of her career when she crosses the Imperial Fleet in the form of Captain Naumov, who seems a truly implacable foe.

I would like to have seen the idea of an Empire ruled by aristocrats challenged here, although Orry and her family are happy to milk said nobles for all they can get. But for all that it's an exciting read with a capable and cool headed protagonist. I was impressed by the way that Dulley gets a naval feel to the action, the book reminding me somewhat of Hornblower.

Looking forward to the story continuing in the The Morhelion Exile.

14 June 2018

Review - Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

Old Baggage
Lisa Evans
Doubleday, 14 June 2018
HB, 320pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Old Baggage.

It is 1928. Matilda Simpkin, rooting through a cupboard, comes across a small wooden club – an old possession of hers, unseen for more than a decade...

This book is a prequel, of sorts, to Crooked Heart, in which we follow the story of young Noel in the early days of the Second World War after the death of his eccentric (though rather wonderful sounding) godmother, Mattie.

Old Baggage tells us more about the fascinating Mattie. She has led a turbulent life, including activism as a Suffragette, but when this story opens, in 1928, she's living a quieter life near Hampstead Heath with her companion Florae ("The Flea"). There are glimpses of past glories: Mattie's house was a refuge for women playing the deadline game of "cat and mouse" with the authorities at the height of the campaign for the vote. There are also regrets: that women' suffrage is still not universal (Florrie has never been able to vote, because she fails the property qualification), that the militant campaign was halted in favour of the War Effort.

Lissa Evans evokes very well the sense of chaffing, of stasis, that affects one who has taken part in significant events but is now sidelined. (This calls forward to a theme explored in Crooked Heart where we meet another stalwart suffragette in reduced circumstances during the Blitz). Faced with this, and after meeting an old comrade whose activism has taken a sinister turn into fascism, Mattie sets out to educate the girls of the district by founding a wonderful, anarchic outdoor youth group. Telling the stories of the suffragettes and of great women from history, teaching use of the javelin and the slingshot, and encouraging the young women to further their education, gives Mattie the focus she needs. And if it results in a little healthy competition with the rival, and hated, Empire League (which believes in smartly polished boots and the expulsion of foreigners) then what can go wrong?

This is a sharply observed, often comic, but also deeply sad story. We see - in flashbacks - something of Mattie's early life and come to learn about her strengths and but also her weaknesses. (Ida, one of the young women swept up in her wake, points out that however much Mattie's heart is in the right place, she does;t understand the difference having money has made to her). In the end her greatest weakness is all bound up with family and with her lost, adored brother Angus, of whom she can believe no wrong - a belief that warps her judgment in the end and risks the purposeful life she's built.

Old Baggage - the name cleverly combining an insult that might be used of a woman like Mattie and the idea of clutter from the past dragging one down, both themes of this book - is a fairly short book, just over 300 pages, yet it ranges widely. Evans gives us vignettes, showing Ida bogged down by her passive-aggressive mother who doesn't want her bright daughter to progress any further than she did, or at her 'continuation school', or Florrie at her work as a health visitor, trying to ameliorate the desperate tide of poverty and ignorance of the inter-war years. There are also Mattie's reminiscences, especially when she encounters a childhood friend, and glimpses of at least one other character from Crooked Heart (which I think I need to go back and reread now that I know more about Mattie). It's a very effective technique, allowing the book to cover much more ground than you would expect.

Coming a century after that achievement of the first votes for women - but at a time when the struggle for equality and decent treatment is clearly still raging - it's a also a salutary read, highlighting many issues that are still current, such as the man who seems a staunch ally, even being arrested and sent to prison, but whose motivation is at least in part to get close to all those women, or the women who hold other women back, or the consequences of an untimely, unwanted pregnancy. Or a shout from a man in the street:

"'Give us a smile, girlie,' said the bus conductor.

She could have bitten him."

Yes, there have been improvements.  Mattie reflects how "Long ago, as a child in a pinched and stifled  century, she had seen her own mother gradually disappear." But despite these, Mattie and a friend can't, as "unaccompanied" women, be served in a bar. Florrie still cares for wives whose husbands won't have any truck with contraception. And one of her colleagues accepts that if she marries, she'll have to give up work. many obstacles remain and perhaps Mattie's frustration at the start of this novel is her sense of that - and of having ceased to push forward, instead recalling old glories and giving her magic-lantern lectures about the struggle. All that old baggage.

It is simply a great read, peopled by larger than life characters who almost jump of the page to hold your attention. Deeply engaging. I hope that Evans might return, again, to these characters, telling us more about Mattie's earlier life, or Ida or Inez's future, or perhaps more about Noel (who also features here though to say how would be a spoiler).

I'd strongly recommend this book.

For more information, see the publisher's website here.

13 June 2018

Review - Shelter by Dave Hutchinson

Shelter (Tales of the Aftermath, Book 1)
Dave Hutchinson
Solaris, 14 June 2018
PB, 304pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley.

I've always been fascinated by the period in British history that used to be known as the Dark Ages. That name is used less now as it's been accepted that chaos didn't descend when Roman rule ended. Nevertheless there were huge changes - the loss of manufactured goods, of widespread trade and of currency.

Set a hundred or so years after the destruction of modern civilisation by an asteroid strike known as "The Sisters", Hutchinson's new book takes a look at what one might term a modern "Dark Ages". As in the 5th century, we see here little bands of survivors eking a living among the ruins, keeping farming going but with no modern manufacturing. Here, as then, there are surviving patches of control and order where military formations survived, and others where local strong men establish little kingdoms.

It was the age of Arthur...

...it is the age of Adam.

Adam is - what? A spy? An explorer? - for Guz, the realm, polity, city-state, call it what you will, that emerged from Portsmouth naval base. In this book he's sent on a mission across country to investigate a rather nasty warlord who has established himself in Kent. Adam is a resourceful sort, self reliant, careful, tough, and me makes a good viewpoint character as we see what our world has become, six or seven generations on.

Hutchinson is good at letting his story unspool, showing us the territories Adam is going through and the character of their residents. As well as Kent there's an agricultural enclave on the Berkshire/ Oxfordshire border (there's some kind of trouble further north in Oxford and the Cotswolds, we never find out exactly what) where much of this story takes place. It's not, though, an idyllic, Hobbiton sort of place. Rather, The Parish is rent by jealousies and grudges and ready to erupt in civil war. Inevitably Adam becomes involved in this but I won't say any more about the detail because that would give away rather too much.

This part of the story shows off rather effectively, I think, the "nasty, brutish and short" lifestyle which we all fear will befall us should civilisation stutter. The way Hutchinson chooses to animate the conflict here almost made me gasp - he's certainly not sentimental about his characters, and what happens shows, perhaps, that the term "Dark ages" really does describe this world.

If that's the bad news, the good is that there will be more books set in this universe - the next, Haven by Adam Roberts, is due in August. Hutchinson and Roberts are clearly having fun - as well as an Adam in this book the second has a "Forktongue Davy". Roberts, of course, has form in depicting apocalyptic, futuristic versions of Berkshire (see for example his New Model Army) and Hutchinson's Fractured Europe sequence (I think it's now a five book trilogy) shows a continent divided into petty states and autonamous holdings, so together they seem almost destined to produce something like this.

Very thriller-y, very violent, pretty dark and with hints of wider developments - whether it's the inherited nukes of Guz, the strange "Spanish fleet" moored off the coast or those mysterious goings-on to the north - I sense a lot more to come fro this world, and I'm looking forward to that (not least because I think I live in the path of one of these roving war bands and I need to know what's going on!)

For more on the book see this review at The Eloquent Page

7 June 2018

Review - Hunted by GX Todd

Hunted (The Voices, 2)
G X Todd
Headline, 31 May 2018
HB, 496pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Hunted (and - full disclosure - the previous book in this series, Defender, quotes my review).

Todd's previous book, Defender, was an outstanding example of post-apocalyptic storytelling - scary, searing and convincing. Hunted manages - and I don't know how she did this - to be better still. The story corps effortlessly from passages of grim realism, almost miniature documentaries on the breakdown of society under the onslaught of the "Voices", to dreamlike sequences threatening carnage and pain or moving passages showing how even in an upside-down world, love still endures.

The Voices brought death and destruction because they urged killing or self-killing. Those affected, even if they didn't commit violence, are deeply mistrusted by the survivors, tracked down, tortured and murdered. If you have a Voice you try to hide it.

Across a landscape of a ruined United States, we follow three groups of survivors trying, in their different ways, to live in this new, changed world. Posy leads a group of hunters, tracking the elusive woman Red. There is something a bit... off... about Posy, about his relationship with his own Voice, and with the terrible Flitting Man. He drives his ragtag team unmercifully, but his goal is obscure.

Albus and his group of survivors live at the inn by the Sea, hinted at in Defender. His abilities allow him to locate and save the lost and wandering, building a team that can travel in the nightmare world of these books - but again, why and for what purposes?

Lacey, Alex and Addison featured centrally in Defender and are in a sense the hinge of the book, fleeing across a cursed landscape (but escaping what? And going where?) They have made enemies, their friends are dead, but the three (two women and a girl) are coolly competent, survivors. They take some time to make their appearance, Todd holding back these most familiar - and most relatable - figures from the first book almost till the middle of Hunted and dwelling instead on Posy and Albus.

The stories of these groups are woven together into a complex timeline that isn't afraid to dip backwards and forwards. As a result there's a somewhat mythic sense, a distancing effect, through much of the book - seeing the aftermath of an awful event before the event itself both reassures (you know that everyone survived) and appals (when the event itself begins you know it will be bad because you've seen the post-trauma). At the same time, the dreaminess and a creeping understanding of the Voices (not complete, not yet, by any means) adds to the overall sense of gathering dread.

Todd is a brutal author. She holds little back when it comes to heaping suffering on or killing off her characters. Even the ordinary lives depicted here - I use that word advisedly - are bleak; doomed, starved, hopeless people shuffling through a withered, hopeless world. It isn't a zombie apocalypse by any means but the depth of suffering, the wrongness depicted here, is much, much worse making that almost seem like a cosy genre.

And as we see in Hunted the madness and destruction is not over, rather it's getting worse. More akin, perhaps, to Lord of the Flies than anything else I've read, the story takes a dark view of a humanity released from social conventions and tormented by apocalyptic, teasing, haunting visions.

While there are grains of hope here, the book can make for hard reading at times, but it is also at these times it's hardest to put down.

I know this book will stick with me. I'd strongly recommend you read it.

For more about Hunted see the publisher's webpage here. G X Todd's page is here.

1 June 2018

Review - Wyntertide by Andrew Caldecott

Cover by Leo Nickolls
Wyntertide (Rotherweird 2)
Andrew Caldecott
Illustrated by Sasha Laika
Jo Fletcher Books, 31 May 2018
HB, 473pp

I read and enjoyed Caldecott's first book,  Rotherweird last year (my review). The story of a special town in England, one left isolated and made independent for a very special reason, it's a kind of steampunk Passage to Pimlico crossed with The Wind in the Willows, complete with eccentrics, villains, a vividly realised location (I want to live in one of those Rotherweird towers!) - and magic. All manner of wonders are there.

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of the sequel, Wyntertide (and a copy of the Rotherweird paperback to pass on to a friend - see photo below).

'By the pricking of my thumbs...
The graves are open,
Wynter comes...'

Wyntertime is in several respects a more complicated, even a more 'difficult' book than Rotherweird (not meant in a bad sense!) In Rotherweird, we learn about the town gradually, through the arrived of an Outsider, new history teacher Jonah Oblong, who is pretty central to the story. An an Outsider he knows nothing of the place's history and ways, so we have the benefit of the explanations he is given, and see him gradually become part of the town until he is central to the cataclysmic events of Midsummer.

In Wyntertide, the story jumps straight in - and the viewpoint is much more evenly spread out among a wide cast of characters with Oblong playing a smaller role. This all puts a high premium on knowing who everyone is (there's a helpful list) and - given the interconnectedness of the stories - what happened before. For that reason I think they would best be read one after the other.

What Caldecott has done here is  think rather clever and rather risky. Given the appeal of Rotherweird-the-imaginary-place, it must have been tempting to play safe, to continue exploring the distinctive, inward looking culture with its rather 1950s-seeming population, coexisting with the modern world while not really being part of it. You might even sell that as a bit of a satire, and it's something I'd certainly read. Indeed, given the first book is actually about a threat from Outside while this one digs deep into Rotherweird's past, that almost seems the obvious way to go.

But Caldecott doesn't do that. Instead, he throws new and rather spicier elements into his dish. We may have thought we understood Rotherweird's past, and what the Eleusians did, but no. We learn more in this book - both about the Elizabethans who founded the town and about its even older history.

There is also romance here. There is politics, as the town is swept by election fever - including a rather scary attempt to scapegoat the Countrysiders and grab their possessions - and exiles return to vote. And a palpable sense that beneath the Hobbitish bustle and self-satisfaction of Rotherweird are dangerous currents.

And yes, at times, all the material does rather come across as one damned thing after another, with not one, not two, but three mysterious books in play, puzzles hidden in paintings and carvings, and at least two factions among the - rather mysterious - forces threatening the town. You can't accuse this book of ever having a dull moment. But that rather heightens the sense that nobody here is in control, nobody has the full picture, nobody can meet the threat that's coming.

And threatened the town is, by a more insidious, deep-laid and formidable plot than in Rotherweird, giving a much sharper sense of peril and, yes, of actual evil than in the previous book. It's definitely darker, and I'd strongly recommend you to read it, and to keep reading, even if slightly overwhelmed by the beginning.

Finally, I have to say a word about the gorgeous illustrations by Sasha Laika. Gorgeous in themselves, they really bring something to the text, whether chilly horror, immersive world building or simply tenderness. And of course, the cover map, by Leo Nickolls, is glorious.

The third and final book, Lost Acre, comes next year. It promises to be a real treat.

Jo Fletcher books setting a high standard in bookpost

28 May 2018

Review - The Cutting Edge by Jeffrey Deaver

The Cutting Edge (Lincoln Rhyme)
Jeffrey Deaver
Hodder, 17 May 2018
HB, 434pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of this book.

This is a tense and cunningly plotted thriller set around the workshops and showrooms of New York's diamond district.

With Lincoln Rhyme and his associates, Deaver has created a magnificent ensemble. Based around the ex-cop's New York townhouse, which features a fully equipped modern forensics lab, the team support Rhyme who acts as consultant to the New York police, the FBI and also more esoteric law-enforcement agencies.

Rhyme may be quadriplegic but dominates the books through his leaps of deduction and understanding of forensic science. Very much a Sherlock Holmes figure - in places this book reminded me of Holmes's reading a man's entire life from the observation that he had mud on his shoes particular to a certain area of London - Rhyme nevertheless has a degree of humanity and empathy that, perhaps, the Great Detective lacked.

He needs all of it here. A serial killer is targeting newly engaged and married couples. Will Rhyme and Amelia Sachs come into the killer's sights?

This is a story that seems to be resolving fairly early. We see a killer at work, and surely it is it just a mater of time until Rhyme and his crew join the dots and catch them.

But. Things start to get... complicated. The book has a truly fiendish plot, continually seeming about to resolve but then only getting more complicated. Rhyme seems to be getting distracted, taking on private work for, of all people, a South American drugs lord. What's that about? And as the jewellery killer flits about Manhattan, other, older forces seem to be causing destruction as well.

It's a very enjoyable book, full of sharp turns, misdirection and relations. You have to watch everything, but trust nothing. Once or twice I thought Deaver was being sloppy with the story, then turned the page and kicked myself for missing what was really going on.

An enthralling mystery, lots of peril, a cast of well established and likeable characters - and a killer. What more could you want?

For more about the book, see the publisher's website here.

26 May 2018

Review - Charmcaster by Sebastien de Castell

Charmcaster (Spellslinger 3)
Sebastien de Castell (illustrated by Sam Hadley)
Hot Key Books, 17 May 2018
HB, 432pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley.

This is the third in de Castell's Spellslinger series, following the adventures of runaway mage Kellen. If you haven't read the earlier books yet you definitely should - read on to see why! (I've tried to avoid spoilers here for the earlier books).

Kellen is a credible and engaging protagonist. He's had to flee his home and leave his family (albeit after they treated him appallingly). He is struggling with what he believes to be a full blown curse. He's not all-powerful, he has been wounded and limited in his earlier encounters with his fellow Jan'Tep. Yet still he tries to make his way - essentially, he brags his way through dangerous situations using the skills taught his by the wandering Argosi, Ferius. There's an air of tension in any encounter with more powerful mages or warriors, albeit one frequently offset by the humour of Kellen's bickering with his squirrel cat 'business partner', Reichis - the relationship between the two often becoming quite touching. And Ferius is a great support, although she seems to be repeatedly getting into danger in defence of Kellen...

In this book, the three are joined by another renegade Jan'Tep, who has also been damaged by that community, and the group is beginning to shape up into an interesting crew, quite different from the typical fantasy band of arrogant adventurers. The language and atmosphere of continues, at the start,  to echo that of a Western, focussed on the idea of escape into an unknown frontier - albeit, as this book makes clear, it isn't really, it's already occupied by other people - but that changes somewhat when the group arrive at a city.

Gitabria is renowned far and wide for its cunning inventions. There, the friends  find themselves caught between angry mages, visionary 'contraptioneers' - inventors - and a rather nasty Secret Police. There's a messy, many-sided power struggle going on and Kellen has to dig deep into his reserves of courage and also of trust. When family, clan and friends fall - like Ferius's cards - into such strange patterns, how will you know who to rely on?

There is a danger with drawn out series that the pace will flag, the clarity of the original vision be lost, as the author explores a wider and wider world. Nothing like that is going on here. I felt that Charmcaster is, rather, more sharp and focussed than Spellslinger or Shadowblack with some juicy moral dilemmas and with an awful choice (well, actually, several) confronting Kellen. In a sense, he's growing up and needs to decide where his life is going, conscious that he's bringing danger to those around him.

It's also a book that is more ensemble than the earlier volumes - with one new character in particular (well, not actually new, but, at the same time, new) who is another complex, conflicted and wounded person and easily a match for Kellen.

It is all, really, getting darker and messier. Just how I like things.

With the fourth volume, Soulbinder, due this Autumn, you've got time to catch up - so get reading!

You can see my reviews of Spellslinger and Shadowblack here and here. For more about the book see the publisher's website here.

23 May 2018

Review - 84K by Claire North

Claire North
Orbit, 24 May 2018
HB, 452pp

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of 84K.

Trying to sum up this book, and North's writing, in a discussion with a friend on Twitter recently, I said that she is a remarkable writer, doing extraordinary things. There's a sense in which case I ought perhaps to stop there because I find that - like many of the books I enjoy most - it's hard to say a more. A book can take you like that. The reading catches you so strongly that you can't uncouple and analyse it.

But I want to say more because I want to persuade you, my readers (yes, both of you) to try this book. In doing that I'll assume you haven't read North's work (although... why wouldn't you have...) and try to explain why it grabs me so much.

First, there's her language. More than any other I currently read, North is disassembling and reconstructing English as she goes along. Her books are full of half completed sentences, implied and finished in the reader's head rather than on the page. Sometimes, that is to catch the roughness and jumble of actually spoken language but sometimes it's...

It's hard to give an example because the way the words works is intimately wired into their layout on the page. Spaces, blank half lines, gaps, all matter. It must have been sheer murder to type because the shape is important, this isn't "content" than en e-reader can crunch or MS Word repaginate. So I'm afraid that if I try and quote some the blog sprites will munge it up and lose the effect. But try this (I have removed a character's name to avoid a spoiler)

'The police had an inventory of items removed from [ ]'s flat
      toothbrush hairbrush shoes bedside cup
      splatter evidence blood evidence fingerprints DNA not that
anyone would
      A confession has been received, and given the low estimate value of [ ]'s death, it is not considered necessary at this time to run any more tests on...'

Reading the book, the cumulative effect is almost theatrical, almost once of dance. The words are choreographed, organised, creating shape quite outside the literal meaning. And the literal meaning itself isn't the literal meaning, if that isn't too daft, the suggestiveness of the language doing more than that. Honestly I could drive myself round and round in circles trying to describe this, but you just have to read this, you really do. They're beautiful - both the meaning you take and also the sheer verve, the brilliance, with which North makes her words sing and dance.

If that was all, the book might be interesting but no more. It isn't all, though. There is a thrilling and angry story in this book. Set in the near future (maybe decades from now - global warming in in evidence through rising sea levels, but technology hasn't moved on much) this is a nightmarish world of rampant corporatism. Outsourcing totally out of control, the country is being devoured by the ever-present Company. Not only does it carry out most of the functions of Government, it buys and sponsors whole towns - we hear of Shawford by Budgetfood, the hometown of Theo Miller, our sort-of hero. We hear of how everything is now a matter of money, crime settled by the computation of an "indemnity" to be paid by the perpetrator. We hear how those who can't afford the indemnity are sent to the "patty line" to make restitution. We hear how, impossible to obtain ID being required to vote, the country has slipped out of being a democracy.

The "patties", mentioned in passing to begin with, occupy more and more of the focus of this story as the story reveals how their cheap labour is hollowing out the whole economy, leaving communities abandoned - outside the comfortable enclaves patrolled by the Company police - and whole swathes of the population marginalised, able only to express their despair by howling with rage in the night.

It's a nightmarish, dystopian vision, hard at times to bear - there is a market for everything, we're told, and any offences committed in driving those markets are easily wiped out if the Company will pay the indemnity - but, like the most hard-edged, disturbing destinies I'd venture that there is nothing described here that hasn't actually happened somewhere, sometime. I certainly found it scarily plausible.

Through this broken world, Theo takes a journey, on foot and by canal boat (the latter belonging to Neila, the most truly likeable characters here). North is cagey, to begin with, about where he's going and why, and indeed she dices Theo's story and tells it in thin slices, moving back and forward: it takes till almost the end of the book to work out what order things might have happened in, so I won't say anything more here because spoilers.

Who is Theo? He's an investigator with the Criminal Audit Office, one of the few remaining parts of the Government, and his role is to compute the price of crimes so that the appropriate indemnity can be levied and the patty line keep moving. And, if you were wondering, 84K is the price of a life. (Though I think that combined with the prominence in the book of the "19 Committee" there's also an allusion to another book in which individuals have become part of the machine). In the course of his work, Theo crosses paths with an old friend who knows a secret that could ruin him.

She wants something, and that drives the story in a satisfyingly thriller-y way - but behind this is a story of lives ruined, by a pitiless, profit-maximising system, yes, but also by more ordinary, human quirks and failures. Many of the behaviours exposed here - the sexism enabled and abetted by wealth and privilege, the greed, the seeing others as things to be used and then thrown out, the cowardice, the refusal, 20 years before, to see the way things were going - are not of course troubling new things to be found in a grim future but features of our world, now, things only held in check - if they are held in check - by fragile social norms. North's book is a scary warning, akin to Swift or Orwell, of where all that might lead.

Unlike North's recent books (The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Touch, The End of the Day) there is nothing straightforwardly fantastical here, unless one takes the almost prophetic anger of The End of the Day, dialled up in this book to 11, as fulfilling that role. yes, the timeline is tricksy, and to a degree, the story is punctuated by Neila use of Tarot cards, but the world of 84K is probably too grim to be redeemed by a protagonist who explores successive different timelines or is forgotten when out of sight. Indeed, its grimness is the point - the "thing" about 84K is that future, beckoning us to, oh-so-gradually, give ourselves up to its marketing and its economic efficiency.

Put simply, this book just blew my mind. A remarkable writer, doing extraordinary things, and I think this is her best book yet.

I could say a lot more about it but I only really want to say two.

Buy this book.

Read this book.

12 May 2018

Review - Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough

Cross Her Heart
Sarah Pinborough
HarperCollins, 17 May 2018
HB, 373pp

I'm VERY grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book which I've been eagerly awaiting.

Cross Her Heart must be a strong contender for THE psychological thriller of 2018. Building on the success of last year's Behind Her Eyes, Sarah Pinborough has packed in even more reversals, even more revelations, combined with a sense of sheer page-turning dread that made me equally desperate to find out what happened next - and fearful of knowing.

In this book, innocence is abused, the past explodes into seemingly orderly lives and secrets corrode relationships.

Lisa has worked hard to build a safe home for her daughter, Ava, far from her abusive alcoholic father, Jon. Their life might be quiet but it's secure.

Marilyn has secrets of her own. But she doesn't want to burden her best friend Lisa. 

But when Ava heroically saves a young boy's life, and it makes the national press, it looks like Jon has found them at last.

As danger draws closer Marilyn is the only person Lisa can turn to for help. But can they protect Eva when the threat seems to be everywhere?

Cross Her Heart escalates quickly. Almost from the start there's an atmosphere of menace. We sense that Lisa is in danger. We see clearly that she's troubled by the past and fearful, on edge - though we don't know why. But to distract Lisa there is the day to day routine of her work, rivalry with an unwelcome new colleague who may have secrets of her own, worry over ordinary teen problems with Ava. Maybe, just maybe, Lisa's a bit paranoid.

Alison, in whom she confides, certainly thinks so.

Pinborough excels at describing the day to day anxieties, insecurities and concerns of the women in this book. Eating. Dissatisfaction with their bodies. It's not only Lisa and her workmates, there's sixteen year old Ava too and her gang in the swimming club. They are so young, so insecure, but so much want to be grown up and at the same time they think they're so wise, so worldly, so much cooler than fuddy duddy mothers - just like every generation before them. Portrayed warmly and with heart, their lives are vivid and yearning. As the sense of dread builds, it's entwined with these mundane concerns, Lisa's work worries both fuelling her other fears and taking the edge off them.

Taking her edge off, too, so she doesn't see what's coming, despite spending years looking over her shoulder. The reader sees some, not all of it - several times I was almost shouting "LOOK OUT!" at Lisa. But of course she doesn't want to be worried, she wants to believe that all is well.

And then it hits.

Even as the storm rises and catastrophe strikes, Ava still focusses, though, on her own concerns, her boyfriend, sex, the uncertain tides and currents of her friendship with Angela, Jodie and Lizzie, the fraught relationship with her "weird Mum" who's oh so clingy and should just BACK OFF. Because it's all about Ava, isn't it? With great sympathy and compassion, Pinborough has I think absolutely nailed that desperate stage of life when everything is changing too fast and yet not fast enough, especially if your mother won't let you alone, texts three times in the evening to check you're OK, insists on driving you to school.

But why IS Lisa so overprotective? Parents always are, yes, but... there's more here. What's Lisa hiding, and why doesn't she just come out with it and tell Ava? But then everyone here is hiding something.

Ava certainly is.

So is Marilyn.

DON'T let anyone spoil this book for you by telling you what's going on. DON'T flick to the end. DON'T, above all, trust the book. It escalates quickly, yes, but it's twisty too, indeed even the twists have twists. Always remember it may not be going where you think!

All in all, an electrifying read but also, such a sad book. At times - be warned - it makes very dark reading and these characters really suffer. But Pinborough is never gratuitous. There is abuse here, and there are desperate, stunted lives. But there are also friendships, and loyalty, and trust given against all appearances and there is a moment towards the end of the book when a character says "I'm not going to wait around for a man to save the day. Fuck. That. Shit" and after what you've read through up to that moment you will, I guarantee, punch the air (please bear this in mind if you're reading the book on a crowded train).

This is vintage Pinborough, clever, insightful, deeply human, compassionate and perceptive. If you want to read about how modern lives work, and don't work, you need to read Sarah Pinborough's books. You need to read THIS book. Remember, though, the tricks that she plays with you, the reader, in them.

11 May 2018

Review - The Rig by Roger Levy

Design by Julia Lloyd
The Rig
Roger Levy
Titan Books, 8 May 2018
PB, 615pp

I'm grateful to Titan for an advance copy of this book.

How to sum up The RigThe Godfather in space, but more tricksy? A SPACE noir? The apotheosis of social media?

None of those are quite right - but they all have a bit of truth.

In the future, Earth is abandoned to ecological catastrophe and humanity has migrated to the System to live on terraformed worlds. It's a hard life (one of those planets is simply called 'Bleak' and it lives up to that) and a short one, fifty being a good age. Contradicting shiny expectations of the future, disease hasn't been conquered (several of the characters here suffer form incurable cancer) and corruption is widespread. Star Trek this isn't.

But with things so hard, and religion - 'goddery' - generally disdained, people need something to believe in and this role is taken by AfterLife, a system of preserving the near-dead in stasis until their condition is curable. Memories are harvested first, and when cures are found, public votes - based on the lives of the preserved - determine who will receive them.

Against this background, two very different boys meet on the sole remaining 'religious' planet, Gehenna, a place of harshly fundamentalist beliefs. (Actually there is another - referred to as 'the unsaid planet', a place so fiercely protective of its secrets that even to mention it risks death). Pellonhorc is cruel, mercurial and obsessive. Alef has difficulty empathising and thinks in numbers. (I sense the author has autism in mind but he doesn't say so). They seem an odd pairing but, forced together by events, go on to be friends - of a sort - and, as the book's blurb says, to remake the System. Certainly their relationship is at the centre of this book. It's complex, incomplete and at times baffling, but drives both men.

The book follows Alef's life forwards through 'SigEvs' - significant events - which are supposed to be what the voter will use to decide whether a subject is to be cured or left in suspended animation. At the same time, we see a separate story unfold, told from various points of view in the hardscrabble town of Lookout, on the planet Bleak. The main characters here are a policeman (Bale) a journalist/ writer (Razer) and an engineer  (Tallen).

Bale has been suspended from duty after joining the pursuit of a serial killer while off duty, and while drunk. Razor has been sent by her AI, Cynth, to record Bale's 'TruTale'. And Tallen, well - Tallen wakes up one day in hospital and is never the same again.

This part of the story is twisty and - with its grim streets, hard bitten cops and air of sleaze and corruption - supplies the nourish tinge to the book, as Bale and then Razer attempt to work our what's been going on. Some kind of cover up, seemingly - but of what? And why? Whatever it is, it's worth killing for and everyone who gets near it seems to be in danger. There's a real atmosphere of menave  here and a distinct sense that nothing is what it seems: trust nobody, not even yourself.

It's a violent book, with plenty of death. Some of this is foreseen (all that disease) or foreseeable (given all that gangsterism), some of it comes out of the blue (despite the efforts of the Lookout policy). There's no saying who will be next, and doubly so once the two parts of the story emerges, which only happens slowly. Indeed it's not till the last hundred pages or so that it all really begins to fit together. If you love a slowly unfolding, satisfying mystery then you'll enjoy this, likewise if you're a fan of convincing, well thought out world building. On the evidence of this book, Levy excels in creating beautiful, and believable, worlds and it helps that this is a longish book, so he can take his time to build up the atmosphere, whether of the seedy town with its dives and pre fab housing, the underground racetracks through which hurricane winds blow, or the heaving seas containing the rigs which are the key to Bleak's economy. He warps language itself to indicate the alienness of the System, even if it is peopled by humans - so, we have, as well as 'doddery', 'putter' and 'screenery' and a slew of tongue twisting character names (Pelonhorc, but also Pireve, Dixemexid, Maerleyand and so on).

Overall a weirdly thrilling slice of SF, with a great deal of human reality to it and some great characters. One not to miss.

For more information about The Rig see the publisher's website here.

6 May 2018

Review - Victory Disc by Andrew Cartmel

Cover design by Martin Stiff
Victory Disc (Vinyl Detective, 3)
Andrew Cartmel
Titan Books, 8 May 2018
PB, 432pp

I'm grateful to Titan for an advance copy of this book.

This is the 3rd in the series featuring the (unnamed) Vinyl Detective, his girlfriend Nevada, annoying best friend Tinkler, getaway driver Clean Head and, of course, cats Turk and Fanny. The setup is well established - the Vinyl Collector hunts down old records, and his commissions typically involve him in a historical mystery, which has enough echoes in the present to threaten considerable danger.

Victory Disc is no exception, but takes the gang out of their comfort zone (if being threatened, drugged, burgled or kidnapped can be so described) as the hunt is for even older and rarer records than before - specifically for wartime recordings of the RAF's Flare Path Orchestra, a band of serving airmen purportedly set up to compete with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. The Flare Path Orchestra wasn't, of course, real, the Miller band (of course) was. Yet Cartmel has an amazing knack for describing  (totally fictitious) music so convincingly that you're almost there, listening to it. Very evocative, as is the name Flare Path Orchestra itself which made me think of Terrance Rattigan's play Flare Path, also set against the background of bomber crews in the Second World War.

Of course there's a mystery to be unravelled here, the murder of a young woman, Gillian Gadon, during the war, for which a young RAF officer was hanged. (I strongly approved of the fact that in this story Nevada insists on using Gadon's name, making her more than simply an object of male violence). This backstory intertwines with a commission, in the present, by the wealthy Miss Honeyland, to hunt down any serviving records by the Orchestra whose leader was her father, "Lucky" Lucian Honeyland. (One slight gripe: Honeyland's is described as "Colonel" - not an RAF rank, I think). That sets The Vinyl Detective (or the Shellac Shamus, as Nevada describes him now that he's delving into the age of 78s) tracking down surviving members of the band, widening his knowledge of the wartime bombing campaign (at the heart of the book there is, among other things, a compassionate argument about the cruelty of that campaign and its effect both on German cities and on the aircrew themselves).

This is Cartmel at his best, sending the team off on a series of rackety day trips to obscure corners of Kent, portraying the foibles and varied lives of the surviving band/ squadron members while throwing in an eclectic gallery of record eccentric collectors, menacing thugs, murder historians and, inevitably, more cats (poor Abner...) It all moves pretty briskly and - another thing I like in these books - the crew behave intelligently, understanding (from previous adventures) that there may be danger out there. Not that this makes the book staid or boring - it has a pretty scary climax and the revelations that follow complete a satisfying story, bringing the crimes of the past right into the present and showing how evil persists. Indeed there is something of a sense of urgency to the story and a demand to question appearances and remain vigilant. Another strong theme is erasure, particularly of artists (that's a vein consistently explored in all these books).

In all this was an exciting and atmospheric mystery and a good addition to the Vinyl Detective's casebook. I note that a further instalment, Flip Back, is due in 2019 and I wish the anonymous record-finder and his partner plenty of good, fresh coffee and decent food in their next outing.

Final note: while Cartmel avoids using the Collector's name - how long can he keep that up? - he does use pronouns, so I'm not just falling into a lazy assumption that the character is male!

For more about the book see the publisher's website here.

3 May 2018

Blogtour review - Keeper by Johanna Gustawsson

Cover design by kid-ethic.com
Keeper (Roy and Castells 2)
Johana Gustawsson (translated by Maxim Jakubowski)
Orenda Books, 30 April 2018
PB, 298pp

Today I'm joining the blogtour for Keeper, the new book by Johana Gustawsson- almost (but not quite) at the tail end. Do have a look at the poster for the other reviews, there have been some excellent ones so far. I'm grateful to Orenda for a copy of this book to review and to Anne for inviting me onto the tour.

In this second outing for Scotland Yard criminal profiler Emily Roy and true-crime writer Alexis Castells, Gustawsson again roots a modern day crime in a historical evil. In Block 46, the shadow haunting the present was Nazi medical experiments inflicted on prisoners, in Keeper, it's the Whitechapel Murders of the 1880s (the Jack the Ripper murders).

(Full disclosure, I reviewed Block 46 here and I'm quoted - with lots of others - at the front of Keeper).

Johann Gustawsson
I was relieved that while, in this book, Gustawsson looks back to the 1880s, she doesn't try to unpick or "solve" those crimes (though a theory is mentioned). That road has been well trodden. Rather she places a character alongside the killings, allowing that evil, that taint, as it were, to flow forward. Alongside the narration of the modern day crime, we see Freya in Victorian London, and her descendants, showing how abuse and cruelty can flow forward. Never judgemental, Gustawsson nonetheless presents some pretty shocking scenes - like Block 46, this is not a book for the easily upset, unlike that book there is a theme here of specifically misogynistic violence (as you might expect given the Ripper connection.).

If you've read Block 46, you'l know how good Gustawsson is at drawing you into her world, centred on the relationship between Emily and Alexis. They are not an easy pairing - in Keeper they really fall out over a past case which Emily wants reopened, a case which closely concerns Alexis. It;s an example of how complete a world this is, both women come to the series well established, more as if this were book 7 or 8 than merely 2, not only in their different histories but in how their relationship works.

Again, as in Block 46, the story cuts between the UK and Sweden and Gustawsson assembles an impressive cast to investigate what soon turn out to be related murders of women. I was impressed by this cast, in particular by Aliénor Lindbergh, a young Swedish analyst who has Asperger's syndrome. As someone with a relative who has autism I appreciated the portrayal of Aliénor as a rounded individual, not a set of behaviours, and also that while talented - she's doing a demanding job - Gustawsson doesn't portray her as a genius.The rest of the team in Sweden are impressive too, especially Karla, a woman detective having to put up with a degree of sexist ribbing while more or less running an important case.

All in all this is a complex, well plotted and credible crime novel, with a real punch at the end. It develops its central characters, of whom I hope we'll soon see more, and brings (I hope) a new member to the regular team. And as ever Maxim Jakubowski's translation keeps the story flowing along in English while leaving just a slight edge to the language, giving a hint, no more, of "outside looking in" - a bit of distance, of mystery.

Really looking forward to Book 3.

1 May 2018

Review - Strange Fascination by Syd Moore

Design by James Jones
Strange Fascination (Essex Witch Museum Mysteries)
Syd Moore
Point Blank, 3 May 2018
PB, 448pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy via NetGalley.

I'm also honoured that Syd Moore picked up on an earlier comment of mine which has influenced a particular scene in this book. For the record, Syd, I think the scene in question works VERY well...

This is the third of Moore's Essex Witch Museum mysteries. The earlier books took us on a chase around England (Strange Magic) and to London (Strange Sight) as Rosie and Sam were brought in to investigate different mysteries but now we're firmly back on home ground, with nearly all this story taking place in Adder's Fork (hence the nickname for the locals, the Forkers) where Rosie Strange has her eponymous museum, inherited from her grandfather, Septimus.

I'd been wanting to hear more about Adder's Fork and about Rosie's family and this book doesn't disappoint. Adder's Fork turns out to be a lovely English village - complete with gruesome legends and (allegedly) a buried witch - and trouble kicks off almost straightway with a proposed housing development that would destroy a local landmark, the stone known as the Blackly Be. Like an episode of Midsomer Murders, we get local rivalries, protestors, sexual undercurrents and nasty deaths - and that's even before the supernatural seems to breaking loose.

And before we begin to learn about the history of Rosie's family.

Of course in the end all these things are intertwined, and in this book - at last! - Moore finally clears up some of the mysteries she's been hinting at so far in this series. It's a tangled story and I won't drop any spoilers, but it is worth saying that - as you might have guessed - Rosie's background is a lot more interesting than you'd expect from a holidaying Benefits Fraud investigator from Leytonstone.

As ever much of the charm of the book is carried by the will they/ won't relationship between Sam and Rosie which - given Rosie's rather endearing mixture of perceptiveness and clanging inability to see what's right in front of her - has its inevitable ups and downs. Rosie continues to stand up for herself ("What proper grown-up girl couldn't handle a torch wielding mob, right?",  " 'You, Strange are from a long line of witches and sluts and' she spat... 'and, and, and feminists!' ... I spent most of the joinery back contemplating... how Araminta had... made quite an insightful comment.")

I have to say she has grown on me through these stories, beginning as pretty unsympathetic - a Benefit Fraud inspector, wanting to sell off the museum, obviously reluctant to be involved in all the spookiness that had swept her up - but fighting her way though magnificently, never more so than in Strange Fascination. Rather fittingly, there's a lot more spookiness here than in the earlier books (although, as ever, Moore is careful to leave open-ended what exactly is happening) yet Rosie and Sam come through with aplomb, navigating the gallery of villagers, toffs, Essex girls and distant relatives as well as the police, forensic service and even a greasy estate agent.

All in all I think this book - and the series its part of - an absolute triumph, with its own distinct voice, humour and - at the centre - a rather sweetly romantic story.

The last word should go to Rosie. Asked whether "Some secrets are better left buried" she replies "No... I think it's better to face the strange, however painful... that might be."

And that is what this book does.

For more about the book, see here.

29 April 2018

Review - Everything About You by Heather Child

Everything About You
Heather Child
Orbit, 26 April
HB, 340pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

In a future London (perhaps 20-30 years from now, some time after a year of riots which have left whole districts derelict) 22 year old Freya survives a dead-end job in an IKEA-like furniture barn. At the start of the story she's selling actual, physical furniture, but there's an air of threat over the job as warehouse space is being converted for housing and the sales soon become virtual, supported by AI powered assistants. All that's left is flipping sausages in the cafe with her mate Chris, closely, too closely, watched over by their boss Sandor.

The AI theme is of course central here, as the book cover hints. It's a future of virtual and augmented reality mediated by specs, visors, hairnets that sync thoughts with the cloud and - the latest innovation from mega corp Smarti - "smart faces", virtual personal assistants that can adopt the persona of anyone (dead or alive) who hasn't declared their digital footprint "private". One example: a pink line overlaying one's field of view shows the best way to go, even to avoid other pedestrians around you. When, towards the end of the book, Freya's specs run out of battery and she has to manage this for herself, even such a simple task is hard and takes conscious effort. Or there is this: "There is no need to memorise or learn other languages, even dentists's appointments are arranged by her toothbrush when it detects enough tartar".

Privacy in such a world is... problematic... with the kind of tracking and inference currently seen online rife in the real world - as Freya moves about London, she's constantly served ads by screens or shop windows, bombarded with advice by her "Smartbit" (for example, her Health score changes depending what she eats or how much sleep she's had) and there's a pervasive system in the background of scoring things, from lattes to sexual encounters (so that "rated" has become a general term of approval). I have to say that following the Cambridge Analytica revelations, this book is brilliantly timed. Child has worked in digital marketing and the proof copy of the book I was sent points out on the back cover that the world depicted here isn't that far off(!).

Yet, while the implications of rampant AI are undeniably attention grabbing, the book is much more than an angry howl at the coming world of digital manipulation. At the centre is a sad story of Freya, her mother Esther and lost (adopted) sister Ruby. The book turns on what happened to Ruby, and on the guilt that both women feel about her disappearance. Child is simply brilliant at showing how, after a Ruby-esque personality surfaces in Freya's new Smartface, everything gradually begins to come apart. Freya is both revolted and enthralled by the opportunity to talk again to "Ruby". What does kt mean, though? Is it a hint that Ruby is still alive somewhere, perhaps trapped, perhaps needing help? As Freya grapples with the reality - or not - of what she's experiencing, we begin to see flashbacks to her life with the "real" Ruby, a vivacious, awkward young woman, a rebel and an explorer of London's weird side, above all a good friend, with a kind heart, who took the lonely Freya under her wing on arrival in London from the "north". (The reason for that arrival - her mother's finding a new job in what seems like a major life change - is never explained, though there might be hints - and I could finally guess at the why. Child uses this tangential approach a lot - for example, she describes how there is "a certain hush pervading neighbourhoods where the government might try to interfere, to recruit or deploy some of its many volunteers" - for what purposes? She doesn't say, but not good ones, surely).

It is though the relationship between Freya and Ruby that is central to the book, both their adventures and closeness as teenagers and, later, Freya's grappling with what's presented, convincingly, as being Ruby.  Child explores ideas about what makes identity, what makes humans human, and how we might, insidiously, come to accept something both less and more as a substitute (so in that way, yes, this book is a warning about the future - or even the near-present - only a more subtle one that you might think). She is I think spot on about the effect on Freya of losing Ruby. It's the hope that gets you. "...hope, once kindled, rages like a wildfire. Every time she has to douse it, a part of her needs to heal, and recently it has been a relief to close her eyes at night and know the next day will bring no firefighting."

This is also an excellent, compelling narrative, depicting a world where many of the currently emerging problems of a connected life are simply seen as the default: online stalking, porn addiction, jobs lost to AIs, predatory men hunting down women both in real life and online, manipulation of those all important "ratings", over-mighty corporations... and the almost incidental loss of privacy (Freya's mum carries a pendant that syncs with her daughter's Smartbit).

Everything About You isn't without hope, there's a strong message here that we can, if we want, keep the option of living our own lives, rather than just following the choices the algorithms make for us - but that it won't be easy and and there isn't long left.

I mean, look at this. Even the book cover is tracking me...

For more about the book see here.

24 April 2018

Review- The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso

Cover design by Lisa Marie Pompilio
The Defiant Heir (Swords and Fire 2)
Melissa Caruso
Orbit, 26 April 2018
PB, 515pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of The Defiant Heir.

This is Book 2 in the series, following from The Tethered Mage. Refreshingly, it's very accessible so that even if you haven't read the book, you'll quickly be up to speed and able to enjoy this one. But as is the way with series it's much more fun if you start from the beginning so, in case this review influences you to follow the story, I'll keep it as spoiler-light for Book 1 as I can.

The Defiant Heir is set in  a very well imagined world which is perhaps 17th-18th century in development (flintlocks, gunpowder, carriages) but also has magic (Witch Lords, mages) and its own form of technology (referred to here as "artifice"). It's a diverse society with women and men taking equal roles and no qualms about same sex relationships.

Lady Amalia Corner, the first-person narrator here, is a smart operator, a bookworm-turned-spy-turned-military-specialist with a place at the heart of the Serene Empire. (In nomenclature and (very loosely) setting there is a whiff of renaissance Venice, with a Doge, Italianate titles ("La Contessa") and lashings of political intrigue). Amalia's also a Falconer for the Imperial forces - handler to Zaira, a woman who's a talented warlock but magically bound to obey Amalia. The relationship between the two forms the bedrock of this book, with Caruso tackling head on the ethical and personal issues arising from such a form of control. The women like each other and get on increasingly well, but their relationship naturally has constraints. So does Amalia's romantic interest in a fellow soldier, Marcello. They clearly fancy each other rotten, but Amalia lives in a world of duty and service which she puts first, and a relationship with Marcello doesn't fit with that.

The relationships were where I really noticed Caruso's cleverness and subversion of what you might expect from fantasy. The situation of Zaira and her fellow mages is odious and oppressive, but no-one sets out to overthrow the Empire simply to root it out. Rather, Amalia has a plan for reform but she is pursuing it by the political means within her power. She needs to build alliances and win support. And while her personal situation is also perhaps a mess, nor does Amalia fling everything overboard and elope with Marcello. Lurking in the background is the threatening Northern empire of Vaskandar whose Witch Lords are greatly to be feared. The Serene Empire is a far from perfect place, but it's a the better place of the two (even if we gradually learn that Vaskandar also has its complexities, and that some parts of it are at least less worse than others - the Witch Lords are as well drawn and varied as anyone in this book, definitely not caricature villains).

The book is then all about compromises - in personal lives, in politics and statecraft, in war (at one point Amalia has to take a heartbreaking decision, accepting one evil to avert a greater one. That decision will have its cost). It's about smart, competent people working together to overcome enormous difficulties. Some of those people are more to be trusted than others. Some have their own agendas. Almost all are willing to make sacrifices - of themselves, or of others. Bad things happen, and the prospect of war hangs over all. But in the focus on what can be done, on cooperation, on achieving things, it's "bright" rather than "dark".

It's also a dashing, compelling and exciting story, blending magic, assassination, conspiracy and diplomacy. The Empire is threatened both by war from the North and by a danger closer to hand. Aiming to resolve both, Amalia and Zaira travel to the borderlands. It may be possible to ally with certain of the Witch Lords, but what will they want in return? What might the consequences of that be? Amalia is playing a dangerous game and she doesn't know all the rules.

I'll make no bones about it, I loved this book. It's fantasy through and through, but avoids - indeed, subverts - the kind of dark "fantasyness" that I find off-putting, with a fresh take on its societies (even the Witch Lords, while a threat, aren't unthinking hordes of evil - there is a logic to their expansionism) and its characters (part of the story concerns a rescue mission, but some of the rescuees have qualms about being rescued, for very understandable reasons).

Amalia and Zaira in particular are fun to spend time with, full of life, complex and interesting.

So glad I read this one - even if I ended up awake till 1am to finish it. What else is coffee for?

For a preview excerpt of The Defiant Heir see here.

For more about the book and to order from the publisher see here.

22 April 2018

Review - The City of Lost Fortunes

Design by Julia Lloyd
The City of Lost Fortunes
Bryan Camp
Titan Books, 17 April 2017
PB, 477pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a copy of The City of Lost Fortunes.

Post–Katrina New Orleans is a place haunted by its history and by the hurricane’s destruction. Street magician Jude Dubuisson is likewise burdened by his past and by the storm, because he has a secret: the magical ability to find lost things, a gift passed down to him by the father he has never known...

A delightful, syncretistic mash-up of urban fantasy, mystery and redemption, The City of Lost Fortunes explores the health and secret life of New Orleans. Set six years after Katrina devastated the city, the hurricane and the ham-fisted emergency response dominate the book, with houses still showing the ghostly "X" that indicated they had been searched for survivors and with a psychic hangover, too: the event robbed the city of its Luck, its Voice and its Magician - not at once, but in the lingering aftershock of the crisis.

Without them, it is vulnerable in so many ways.

None of this matters to Jude Dubuisson, ex apprentice magician, potential demigod, and general fixer for the mysterious Mr Mourning. He want to put the whole thing behind him. Little problem there: Katrina did something to his magic, laying him open to its effects as never before, and now he spends most of his time trying to bleed it out with as little pain as he can.

So he's not best pleased to receive a summons from Mourning - but you don't ignore Mr Mourning...

Thus begins a rampaging quest taking in tarot, religious symbolism, magic, fate, the gods, an angel, a vampire, Jude's eccentric mother and much, much more. Through it, Camp shows a mastery of the city - its music, religious traditions, history, food and culture. Jude lives and breathes those things and through him, Camp shows them to us. If you ever wanted a tribute to a living, breathing city, it's here.

And there's more. Each section begins with a potted summary of an aspect of religion, piling on the contrasts and similarities between traditions drawn from across the world - because all traditions find themselves in New Orleans. It will be Jude's task to navigate through the alternatives and paradoxes as he pursues his own quest.

Exactly what that quest is, what's really going on, the actual stakes for which the game is being played - and who is playing it - only emerges slowly, at times frustratingly slowly. There were moments when I didn't completely follow Jude's or the narrator's reasoning about what was going on. I'm not sure whether that was intentional - there's noting wrong with maintaining a mystery until the right time -  or whether I was misunderstanding stuff I was meant to have got, but either way the effect was to pace the story very well, keeping a great deal in play till the very end while revealing some important, more personal, history about Jude as the story proceeds.

The book is, I think, in the end a celebration of New Orleans - what is has been, what it is, what it can be - as well as an inditement of what has been done to it: there are plenty of sharp-eyed opportunists here who want a slice of the city's body for their own uses, and unprotected, she's ripe for the plunder.

The fact that it all works both on that level, and as urban fantasy, is a credit to Camp's writing and the themes he explores mean that his postscript setting out the origins of the story is genuinely enlightening and informative.

All in all an epic, compulsive read and a rather unusual addition to the canon of urban fantasy.

For more about the book, see the publisher's website here.

19 April 2018

Review - Before Mars by Emma Newman

Cover design by Adam Auerbach
Before Mars (Planetfall 3)
Emma Newman
Gollancz, 19 April 2018
PB, 352pp

I'm SO grateful to Kate for passing me her proof of this book (see her review here).

This is the third book set in Newman's Planetfall series, following Planetfall itself and After Atlas. Planetfall is set on a distant world some time after it was colonised by humans aboard the ship Atlas. After Atlas shows what happened on Earth after that ship departed, and Before Mars is a companion, happening alongside After Atlas but, as the site suggests, on Mars where the main character, Anna Kubrin, has travelled to paint and to geologise. (If you've read After Atlas that will give you an idea of some of the events here, although you don't need to have done to appreciate this book).

When I say Kubrin is the "main character" here, that is probably understating her role. Why she has gone to Mars, what she leaves behind and why she is as she is are all issues that preoccupy the unfolding story. As in Planetfall, there is an aspect to Kubrin's personality and history that is gradually revealed and which answers a question I asked myself early on - why has she gone to Mars? The colony there - a handful of people - is ostensibly carrying out research, though really it seems to be more of a setting for a reality TV show, but the idea of going there to paint seems bizarre even in a future where everything seems to be run by oligarchs ("gov corps") at least one of whom is quixotic enough to send an artist all that way.

Newman excels here in putting across exactly what Anna is like, what she is running from and what she is looking for. Without wishing to speculate too wildly I think there are some deeply personal things being explored here and it must have taken great courage to write parts of this book. I hope nobody finds that off-putting - the result is a convincing and deeply human protagonist who would be fascinating even outside the pages of a gripping SF story, which this is. In a genre sometimes criticised (fairly or not) for flat characters and tech-based storytelling, this book stands out as a penetrating character study.

It is also, as I said above, a gripping SF story. There are mysteries here. Upon arrival on Mars, Anna discovers a note to herself warning her against one of the crew. then she finds that her neural chip has apparently been hacked, allowing her very memories to be used to send her messages. All of this makes her worry that she may be losing her grip on reality in the same way her father did. And that's before a certain AI begins misbehaving (shades of 2001 here).

Occupying a corner of the Planetfall universe and calling back to some of the same events referred to in the earlier books, this is nevertheless a fairly standalone story albeit one that - I hope - points to further instalments ahead. I certainly hope so: Newman can certainly spin a tale and is second to none in creating real, human, fallible and credible characters.

The author's website is here. I reviewed Planetfall here and After Atlas here. Originally published in the US, they are both now available in the UK, published by Gollancz alongside Before Mars.

17 April 2018

Review - One Way by Simon Morden

One Way
Simon Morden
Orion, 10 April 2018
PB, 336pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of One Way via NetGalley.

In the mid 2040s, Frank Kittridge is serving life (or many lives) without possibility of parole for murder. He's lost touch with his son, his wife has divorced him, and there's no future apart from years inside followed by death.

So when he's approached by Xo, the company behind the upcoming Mars mission, and offered the chance of a one-way ticket if he'll join a team of cons doing the spadework for the new base, he knows he's got little to lose. And perhaps, he may find redemption and even some honour one day in the eyes of his son. So Frank says "yes".

From then on, the story is of hard physical training and team building as the group - recruited for their various skills, all put away for life - practise, practise and practise for their different tasks. It's made clear by Brack, the group's brutal overseer, that any slip, any failure, any disobedience - even any illness - will mean being thrown off the programme and consigned to the Hole - a lifetime of solitary in a super-secure prison.

Frank may be out, but he's never going to be free.

Morden effectively portrays the forming dynamics between the members of the little group, their attempts to make the offer work for them and to ensure they succeed and don't get put in the Hole. They are, as one might expect in a story like this, a fairly mixed bunch and trust is hard to build. All the same, Frank gets some satisfaction from accomplishing his assigned task - building the habs that will form the base on Mars, and driving the Mars buggies to be used on the surface.

Throughout this - and indeed throughout the book - we also see internal memos, emails and transcripts of meetings from the Xo Corporation, giving information about the aims and means of the project but increasingly making it clear that corners are being intentionally cut and that there are other agendas than simply completing the base on time and to budget. It's a fascinating patchwork and I'd advise the reader to pay close attention to the dates here as this material bobs about a bit over the ten years or so in which the mission is planned and developed.

The story proper really picks up pace once Mars is reached. The team awake from suspended animation to find that the materials, equipment and food they're supposed to use have been scattered far from the landing site. They will need to pull together to survive, but accidents begin to happen...

I really enjoyed this story. Really, really enjoyed it. It's the kind of book that keeps you reading long into the night and has you annoying the family at meals when you pull out your e-reader. (Reader, I know whereof I speak...) Morden tells a compulsive story, which is at first driven along by the technical challenge of survival in a harsh environment but then, as the base seems to be coming together, turns into a deadly game or murder in a closed setting. There is plenty of tension in how that latter element is resolved (although I did work out fairly early on who must be behind it all, if not, exactly, how and why it was done and I also became rather frustrated that Frank was a little slow to do the same).

It's one of those books that almost seems to change character as you move through it. Given the first parts seems to be an exploration of how teamwork, and trust, might ensure survival, I began to wonder if there was almost a riposte here to what otherwise might seem a very similar book, Andy Weir's The Martian. (You knew I was going to have to mention that...) Weir's book read to me as very old-school, technocratic and individualistic SF, with everything coming down to its protagonist's skills and determination. Like One Way, I read it at a gallop. Unlike One Way (I was surprised to discover when I went back to check) I never reviewed The Martian (one of the few books I've read and not reviewed in the last 5 years or so) which suggests perhaps that for all its readability it made little mark. And it was certainly criticised on grounds of diversity.

Morden does perhaps invite such comparisons by exploring the same survival-on-Mars space,
and in centring the story very firmly on Frank as viewpoint and protagonist, especially in the final part of the book with everyone else a potential suspect, the book explicitly doesn't totally reject The Martian's individualism. What it does do, I think, is enrich it. Frank is a much more rounded and complex character than Mark Watney, with a set of motivations and a backstory which are much more developed. And for much of the book, he is able to demonstrate his relationships with, and his care for, the rest of the team (with all their flaws). In that, the story reminded me of Morden's fantasy novels Down Station and The White City which take a group of Londoners and thrust them into a parallel reality as London burns. There, too, one sees the team dynamics, the trust and the betrayals. It is those same dynamics which Morden uses to build up to his conclusion - a conclusion that is in the end very human.

So while the setup to this story and some of the practicalities may be similar, which seems vary courageous, Minister, on the whole I think it would be unfair to Morden to see this book through that lens, although  I suspect he'll be asked about it A LOT.

In short this book is a fine read, providing a lot to think about.

For more about One Way, see the publisher's website here.

15 April 2018

Review - Blackfish City by Sam J Miller

Cover by Ellen Rockell
(see http://samjmiller.com/uk-cover-for-blackfish-city/)
Blackfish City
Sam J Miller
Orbit, 19 April 2018
HB, 326pp

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of Blackfish City.

One might expect the coming (it's probably more accurate to write actual) climate apocalypse to influence the field of speculative fiction, both in a "what is happening and what the blazes do we do" sense and also as a backdrop to anything set in the future.

Blackfish City is I think an example of the latter. Some 100 years in the future (it's not completely clear) this is a story of life on (aboard?) Qaanaaq, a vast water-borne community named for a shore settlement and built in the shape of an asterisk (a central hub with eight arms). It's clear from the history given that climate change and pollution have caused havoc in this wold - there have been wars, states have fallen and huge populations of refugees are on the move, so one of the most precious resources on Qaanaak is space. The most fortunate have apartments: the merely lucky have a "nook", enough space to sleep, the rest simply have to take shelter where they can. And there is a hierarchy among the Arms.

It is a polyglot, multicultural place filled with traditions, history and languages, a thick broth of a society which the protagonists sample in very different fashions. It's also diverse in other ways, with gender fluidity (one character is referred to throughout as "they") and a key thread in the story built on the missing mothers of another of the characters. Against this jostling background, Miller spins a dazzling story of gangsters, political operators, family, and revenge, all catalysed by the arrival of a woman: "people would say she came to Qaanaak in a skin towed by a killer whale harnessed to the front like a horse. In these stories... the polar hear paced beside her on the flat bloody deck of the boat."

The woman is Masaaraq, and soon all of Qaanaak is agog at her arrival. Where has she come from? What does she want? Is she really "bonded" with the orca - or the bear - surely all those people were massacred years before?

The story shows how Killer Whale Woman's arrival impinges on the lives, hopes and fears, and schemes of a cross section of Qaanaak's people, with chapters following each in turn. There's Fill, heir to one of the comfortable fortunes of Qaanaak as grandson of a Shareholder. There's Kaev, a reliable pro in the world of illegal all-in beam fighting, who has links to up and coming gangster Go. Ankit, part of the political machine for an Arm Manager seeking re-election. And Soq, skate messenger, who's looking to advance himself by working for Go.

All of these characters are pretty much flung at the reader early on, with little overlap (at first). It does take some time to orient and begin to follow the distinct strands, but once you've established who is who and what they're doing there is a firm narrative here as well as a rich sense of place, with the story exploring some of the the distinct strands in Qaanaak society. We hear from City Without a Map, the cryptic broadcast(?) exploring the past, present and future of Qaanaak and whose whispered hints both comment on and direct events. And we are told about the incurable disease known as The Breaks, which overwhelms suffered by feeding them memories of those who infected them, and of those who infected them, and so on. This condition will have a central place in the story, both as a motivation and as a mystery to be solved. the scraps and hints of Breaks-mediated experiences tell us more about how the world came to this pass.

I could happily have lingered much longer enjoying all this (and the hints of catastrophe behind the presence of the different races, tribes and peoples - in particular a fragmented narrative of the fall of New York.) but this is a fairly short book and Miller soon begins to bring his main characters together. I did feel that when this happened, things slowed down at first, rather than sped up. This was first because the characters come with radically different interests and objectives so a bit of work is needed for them to establish any common cause and secondly, due to the story rotating between all the point-of-view characters. (Miller keeps giving chapters from the perspective of the different characters even once they have teamed up and are working together).

But. BUT. Then the book powers on to a nail-biting final third involving plenty of action and with a real sense of jeopardy till the very end, due to precisely those different aims and alliances. These lead to so many possibilities and different futures that it did feel by the last page as though the real story was only just beginning and the book left me wanting more.

An impressive debut novel which was great fun to read. I'd eagerly read a sequel (though I don't sense that's on the cards).